Political

Matt Gaetz's controversial rise to MAGA stardom faces renewed scrutiny amid DOJ probe

Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesBy Will Steakin, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — In 2017, both chambers of Congress passed an anti-human-trafficking bill that provided more funds to protect vulnerable women. The vote was nearly unanimous, minus one lone holdout: Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Gaetz’s vote at the time puzzled his new colleagues in Congress, and days later, he took to Facebook to defend it on a live stream from his parents’ living room.

“I assure you it’s not because I don’t think human trafficking is a problem,” he declared. “It absolutely is. But far too often the best of intentions can lead to mission creep at the federal level.”

The conservative rising star, who spent the past three years drawing the spotlight by cutting against the grain, now finds himself gaining attention he didn’t seek. And again, the subject is human trafficking. Gaetz sits at the center of a Justice Department investigation into potential violations of sex trafficking laws that involves an alleged sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl, multiple sources confirmed to ABC News.

Gaetz turned immediately to the airwaves Tuesday to refute the allegations of a relationship with a minor, doing so in a Fox News interview with Tucker Carlson, who afterward called the segment “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.”

“I have not had a relationship with a 17-year-old. That is totally false,” Gaetz told Carlson. “That is false and records will bear that out to be false.”

Reports of the investigation into Gaetz, first published by the New York Times, have brought fresh attention and scrutiny to the controversial young congressman. Elected to Congress in 2016 after serving in the Florida State Legislature, Gaetz is the scion of a powerful political family in his home state. His father Don served as president of the Florida Senate and has a reported net worth of more than $25 million, according to Florida financial disclosure reports.

A Trump loyalist

A frequent guest at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, Gaetz, 38, emerged as a fierce defender of the former president who vocally backed Trump through two impeachment trials and repeated Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election in the midst of the attack on the Capitol, even taking to the House floor and falsely suggesting that antifa protesters were behind the riot.

“They were masquerading as Trump supporters,” Gaetz said.

The Florida congressman even traveled to Wyoming to headline a campaign rally targeting fellow Republican Liz Cheney after the congresswoman voted for the former president’s second impeachment.

Earlier, during Trump’s first impeachment trial, Gaetz defended Trump by issuing a menacing tweet targeting Trump’s former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen and his wife before Cohen testified before Congress.

“Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot,” Gaetz tweeted, which prompted the Florida Bar to open an investigation into the congressman’s comments.

Trump, in turn, has lavished praise over Gaetz at his boisterous rallies, calling him a “great talent, young, handsome” and saying that he’s “going places.” Trump also noted at a 2018 rally in Fort Myers, Florida, “You talk about defending, he’s fantastic.”

So far, key figures in Trump’s orbit, including Donald Trump Jr. and the former president himself, have yet to weigh in on the allegations against Gaetz. GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a controversial figure herself, defended Gaetz on Twitter Wednesday, calling the investigation a “witch hunt” and adding, “I stand with @mattgaetz.”

Defending Katie Hill

Gaetz has broken from his party on occasion. In 2019, Gaetz was one of the few members to come to the defense of Democratic Rep. Katie Hill after the House Ethics Committee announced an investigation into allegations that Hill had an extramarital affair with an office staffer.

“This is just absurd. The only person who seems to have a gripe is @RepKatieHill’s soon-to-be ex,” Gaetz tweeted, adding, “Who among us would look perfect if every ex leaked every photo/text?”

However, other interactions Gaetz has had with congresswomen have ignited controversy, including repeatedly commenting on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance. Gaetz has called Ocasio-Cortez “attractive” multiple times, and in an interview with TMZ, he referenced the dating app Tinder by saying he would “swipe right” on the idea of working with her on cannabis legislation. In a Daily Caller segment from 2019 that centered around Gaetz’s opinions regarding Ocasio-Cortez, the Florida congressman again commented on her looks, referring to his colleague as an “attractive lady from Queens.”

Later in 2020, when Gaetz revealed for the first time that he had raised a young man from Cuba as his son, the now-former Rep. Hill returned the favor and defended him publicly amid a surge of questions.

“Many of you know @mattgaetz & I have an unlikely friendship,” Hill tweeted. “I can’t stand a lot of his beliefs but he’s been there for me when others haven’t. He talks about Nestor more than anything, has done so much for his son & is truly a proud dad.”

Gaetz has repeatedly referred to 19-year-old Nestor Galban, the brother of one of Gaetz’s ex-girlfriends, as his son — but has suggested that he never formally adopted him.

“Our relationship as a family is defined by our love for each other, not by any paperwork,” he told People magazine.

Later on an episode of his podcast, Gaetz said he feels “like a single step-parent at times,” adding, “There’s a certain kind of love that you can give to another human being, you know, that is not your own flesh and blood, that’s not your own kid.”

Galban was in the background during Gaetz’s 2017 Facebook live stream when he defended his no vote on the anti-human-trafficking bill.

“As you guys can see, I’ve got my, my helper Nestor over here. I’m in my parents’ house out in Walton County,” Gaetz said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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